Friday, July 19, 2013

What is history, anyway?

Guest post from Charley Kempthorne.  

            I’m sure my teachers exposed me early on to the finer poems of the English language.  But alas, the ones I remember best I learned on the playground.  One was this little ditty, often sung in a prancing rhythm:
                                                My name is Jan Jansen.
                                                I come from Wisconsin.
                                                I work in a lumberyard there.
                                                I go down the street and
                                                To the people I meet I say,
                                                My name is Jan Jansen.
                                                I come from Wisconsin, etc.

            This comes to my mind when I think about  writing a family history.  Many of us who want to write a family or personal history are stopped at the gate because our idea of history is much like Jan Jansen’s--a sort of name and address approach.  We want to be objective and factual and so the only things we include are facts.
            But history is history--really just one story after another. So when you sit down to write, one practical way to start is with a list of the stories you want to tell: the story of being the first child in your family to be born in a hospital; the story of attending school in a one room school house; the story of the family’s working together on the farm; the story of your graduating from high school, and so on. 
            Once you’ve made that list, consider what a story is.  You’ve told hundreds, probably thousands of them.  On its simplest level, a story is...what happened.  It is a narrative, a series of chronological events: this happened, then this happened, then this happened.  I went to town to sell the cow and this guy came up to me and offered me a bag of magic beans...  That’s a rather famous story, and if you remember basically the beginning of the story of Jack and the Beanstalk is mostly summary.  All narratives, all stories, consist of summaries and scene. He went to town, bought the beans, went back home, and Mom was mad and threw the beans out, the beans sprang up and then Jack climbed up and met this giant...and now we get into some descriptive detail and some dialogue as the story moves away from summary and into scene.
            In the same way you could tell the story of that day in school when you arose early, dressed and did your chores, jumped on the bus, chatted with your friends on the way to school but in the pit of your stomach you felt nervous because that was the day you were to meet Mrs. Johnson, your new teacher, and she became such an influence on you and your young life, and here she was smiling down at you kindly, asking you your name, and asking you to read something from the blackboard and she somehow made you excited about learning and you really wanted to please her and so you did your very best and you rattled off the words...
            So think of your life as stories.  You won’t think of every single story you want to tell at first.  You don’t have to.  Just think of a few, list them, and then think of each story as a series of scenes with a little summary perhaps at the beginning and here and there throughout, just depending of what you want to focus on. 
            It’s that easy. 
            And you’ve been doing it all your life. 
            One more little thing: when you think about writing your history, think at the keyboard or with a pen in your hand and makes notes as you think.  Never, never sit and think in front of a blank screen or blank sheet of paper and stare at it.  Start writing immediately, not necessarily in full sentences, but with notes that you can later turn into sentences.  At first write one-scene stories, perhaps start with a little summary to put everything in context, and then one little scene.  Put in some dialogue if it’s a scene involving people. People talk.  Even if you can’t remember the exact words that were spoken, take a guess of what probably was said. 
            If you remember to tell the story first and throw in the facts as you go along, and just tell the story in writing the way you’d speak it in words around the dinner table at Sunday dinner, then you can’t go wrong. 

Charley Kempthorne lives in Kansas and travels North America coaching memoir writers and family historians. 

Charley Kempthorne will be present a LifeStory Writer's Workshop at the South Sioux City Public Library on Thursday night August 1st at 6:00 p.m.  Admission is free.  Advanced registration is recommended.  Space is limited. 

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